I began studying violin when I was nine, and the next year began studying with Natalie Ghent (who was then Natalie Morris), who was my teacher until I graduated from high school. As I learned, I played in various student orchestras, and for several years the only concerts I ever went to were those I played in.
Then my violin teacher told us about an upcoming concert. Mischa Elman was going to perform at Carnegie Hall. I remember that the concert was on my birthday in March. My mother and teacher decided to get tickets in the dress circle, the section just above the boxes, better seats that we might have had, as a birthday present, and a friend and her mother came with us. We had the tickets well in advance of the concert date, and it was exciting looking forward to it.
But another story became attached to that concert and is as much a part of my memory as the concert itself.
Mrs. Ghent held recitals for her students with a piano teacher and her students. That winter we had a recital in a studio somewhere in Manhattan. I played near the end of the recital, so there was plenty of time to get nervous. I was playing the beginning of a Scene de Ballet by de Beriot, a slow introduction followed by a faster movement. When I stood up to play I was nervous. I went along for a bit, and then disaster struck. Still in the introduction, I forgot the music. After one or two attempts to resume where I had stopped, I had to look at the pianist’s music. Then we started at the beginning again and I went through with no more mishaps. As I recall, I was actually less nervous after stopping, and played well.
I waited for the one or two players who came after me, then, when the whole thing was finished I was too embarrassed to mingle with the other students and their families. I went and cried, hiding in the coat rack.
Carnegie Hall is quite beautiful, and I was dazzled when we got to our seats by the chandeliers and the crimson carpets and the ornate moldings. I had never been in a concert hall before, and was impressed by the size as well. I remember climbing flights and flights of stairs.
I don’t remember what Elman played. I did not know enough music to recognize most of it, anyway. I remember that his playing was beautiful. I have seen films of him in recent years, and have been struck by his small size, particularly by how long his bow seems. But I remember none of that. What I remember most is Mrs. Ghent whispering to me from time to time that he had forgotten something or played a wrong note, or made some other kind of mistake. Through all of it, or course, he sounded wonderful. That was the point of the lesson, or course; that everybody makes mistakes but the best players keep going.
When I teach violin or viola now, I tell my students who play timidly, afraid of making mistakes, that if they are going to make a mistake, they should make it beautifully and with a full tone. I guess I learned that lesson well.